Hernandez's father decided to open a restaurant partly because he loved to cook, and partly because he didn't want to be a migrant farmworker like his own immigrant parents. He wanted his son—who also loved cooking— to reach even higher. "He wanted me to learn fine dining," Hernandez says. For Johnny Sr.'s generation, European cuisine and white-gloved waiters were the pinnacle of culinary success. "He was constantly on me—where are you going, what's out there, you have to find a chef school, I don't want you working in a restaurant like this your whole life," Hernandez says of his dad.
Johnny Sr. also taught his children how to manage their money. He always paid them for helping out at the restaurant, even if it was just a dollar a day, and would encourage them to save what they earned. Hernandez found he loved this, too. He once asked permission to use some of his earnings to sell candy at the restaurant on weekends. His dad agreed, and helped Hernandez set up near the cash register.
Johnny Sr. died when Hernandez was in middle school, and the family business folded soon afterwards. But Hernandez carried his dad's lessons with him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and then to the kitchens of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara. Hernandez saw each job as a step toward his goal: opening a high-end catering company in San Antonio.
After Santa Barbara, Hernandez came home and took a job at a restaurant group called the Old San Francisco Steakhouse. He was only about 25, but he had a management position that involved travel all over Texas. "After a year of that, I said: You know what? I got this. I'm ready to do it for myself," Hernandez says. He opened his catering company, called True Flavors, in 1994.
"Starting off was not that difficult for me, but it was because I invested six years of my career in education and learning this industry," Hernandez says. One restaurant in town, impressed by Hernandez's résumé, rented kitchen space to him at a low rate. The bigger challenge was learning how to balance what customers wanted (and could afford) with the reputation he wanted to establish. If a bride on a budget asked True Flavors for a not-so-fancy menu, Hernandez would still try to make his dishes look and taste like something served at the Mirage.
Around this time, Hernandez started joining his mom on service trips to Mexico. They'd volunteer at a summer camp in Aguascalientes, 12 hours from the Texas border. "I really fell in love with the people, the culture, and the food. I had never been exposed to that," Hernandez says. He started putting together menus, taking photographs, and researching the flavors of interior Mexico—flavors he felt weren't really being showcased in his hometown, a city famous for tourist-friendly Tex-Mex.